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Don Johnson (1939–2000)

by Michael Foster

A man whose influence on jazz in Canberra, Australia and beyond will never be fully measurable, died of cancer at his home in Canberra on May 29, after being diagnosed with the disease in January.

A quintessentially quiet American, Don Johnson lobbied for, wrote, introduced and headed for its formative years the jazz studies course at the Canberra School of Music.

Many of the jazz studies graduates during his involvement with the course, from 1985 to 1988, are members of what is recognised in Sydney as "the Canberra phenomenon" and are, in their turn, influencing the development of the art. Johnson was born and educated in the United States, graduating in 1966 as bachelor of music, majoring in music education, from the University of North Carolina.

While still a classical student and still in his late teens he went "on the road" with the big bands of Charlie Spivak, Art Mooney and Ray Eberle and in Judy Garland's touring backing band, as both player and arranger, between 1959 and 1962. He was a scholarship student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and completed his degree at North Carolina while teaching in local schools.

From 1960-63 he was principal trumpet with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In 1968 he came to Australia as principal trumpet with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Ten years later he was appointed lecturer in trumpet at the Canberra School of Music. He subsequently became a master of music in jazz from The Australian National University in 1996, bachelor of education, at graduate level, from the University of Canberra and a registered teacher in NSW and the ACT in 1998. He had retired from the CSM to pursue the bachelor of education degree.

He was instrumental in establishing the masters degree in jazz performing and arranging and composition at the ANU because, as he said, "if we are teaching these highly talented young people we should have appropriate academic qualifications". Most of the academic staff during his time also took the degree. He resumed teaching at Radford College, a Church of England grammar school, and with the ACT Department of Education and Training in the instrumental music program. In both roles he pursued his interest in, and enthusiasm for, development of big bands.

While his academic qualifications were extensive it was his talent as a trumpeter and flugelhorn player in both classical and jazz idioms, and his empathy with his students at every level, which especially marked him. He was an outstanding contradiction of George Bernard Shaw's principle that "those who can do and those who cannot teach".

A highlight in a career of many highlights was his guidance of the Canberra School of Music Big Band to a win in a national competition in 1995 for the right to represent Australia at the 1996 Monterey [California] Jazz Festival. It also toured schools, high schools and universities in California that had reputable jazz studies courses.

After being backed by the CSM Big Band at the University of California Berkeley and in Fresno, the international trombonist Bill Watrous said that if he ever toured Australia he wanted "this band" behind him. It was one of many tributes paid by internationally recognised musicians and educators, on that tour. They included Bill Holman, who by coincidence was at a Monterey concert at which the band played some of his arrangements from the band book. He expressed his pleasure.

After a concert at San Diego State University, pre-eminent in jazz education, a line-backer-sized African-American alto saxophonist glowered at me (as tour manager) and, with expletives deleted, asked: "How come your guys are playing our music better than we play it?"

Johnson conducted, recorded with and backed national and international musicians and played solo and small group concert and recording sessions, bridging classical and jazz throughout his career. They included appearances at many jazz festivals, at the International Jazz Educators conference in Perth and with many leading Australian performers such as Ricky May, George Golla, Julian Lee and the Morrison brothers.

His classical CV includes appearances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the 1980 Adelaide Festival, with the Royal London Ballet orchestra behind Rudolph Nureyev in 1976.

Space precludes detailing the extent of his activity, but a close relationship with him from the time of the establishment of the jazz studies course led to an awareness of the range of his talents, about which he was personally reticent. It also gave the opportunity to watch how people reacted to the recognition of his musicianship.

During his illness his family was comforted by the warmth of support shown from a wide representation within the music community, including cards from young music students whose lives he had touched. This was emphasised at his memorial service on Friday, June 2, at which the manner and effectiveness of his teaching at all age levels was accentuated by a succession of speakers.

Musical tributes were played by former teaching colleague Harold Luebke on saxophone and Craig Scott on bass, "My Funny Valentine"; The Idea of North (Trish Delaney Brown, Megan Corson, Nick Begbie and Andrew Piper — all jazz studies graduates); "The Irish Blessing", and a track from Gery Scott's "A Lot of Living to Do",on which Johnson played flugelhorn in "Here's That Rainy Day".

Don Johnson is survived by his widow, Florence, son Alex, daughter Anna, daughter-in-law Christina and two granddaughters, Jessica, 4, and Charlotte, 18 months, sister Sally Beaty, and by his mother Monterery, who travelled from Florida to be with the family.

Original publication

Citation details

Michael Foster, 'Johnson, Don (1939–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 February 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 August, 1939
Chicago, Illinois, United States of America


29 May, 2000 (aged 60)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.